PEORIA, Ariz. – For most players, the realization that those who own and operate baseball franchises coldly view the game as a business and the players as production or salary projections instead of a person competing at the highest level comes at different points in their careers.
For Jake Fraley, this happened well before the infamous speech from now-former Mariners CEO Kevin Mather to the Bellevue Rotary Club. It came during a 2020 season that was interrupted by COVID-19 and never became much more than a lost year in his career.
Asked to sum up 2020, Fraley replied, “That’s a loaded question,” while offering a wry smile during Saturday afternoon’s video conference.
“I don’t know that I could put it into one word,” he said. “I think 2020 was a big learning curve for me. I’ve had a couple of interviews where they’ve asked pretty much the same question.”
But a few appropriate words come to mind:
That last one was particularly fitting when Fraley returned to summer camp after the long pandemic shutdown. With only four true outfielders on the Mariners’ 40-man roster at the time, he seemed like a lock to make the team, similar to spring training. Instead, he was optioned to the alternate training site two days before the start of the season. The Mariners said he wasn’t swinging the bat well during the intrasquad games and privately complained that he showed up heavier and bulkier than anticipated. Seattle’s opening day roster featured just two true outfielders — Kyle Lewis and Mallex Smith.
Fraley felt the minimum sample size didn’t offer a true representation.
“It was 15 at-bats in summer camp and I think that little pool of at-bats is kind of irrelevant in my eyes,” he said during in an interview in summer camp. “It was extremely tough. You obviously have the mindset that you’re going to make the team just like everybody else does.”
Fraley sat in purgatory at the ATS for a month before being recalled Aug. 22 when Dylan Moore injured his right wrist. Fraley played in six games, getting four hits in 23 at-bats with a double, a triple, two walks and eight strikeouts.
But when the Mariners claimed outfielder Phillip Ervin off waivers and activated him Sept. 5, Fraley was sent back to Tacoma.
All the words — both public and private — said by manager Scott Servais, director of player development Andy McKay and general manager Jerry Dipoto about Fraley’s potential as a player and his place in the organization as part of the team’s future felt hollow and misrepresented.
At perhaps one of the lowest points of his professional career, Fraley turned to his faith for answers.
“You guys all know, everyone I’ve talked to knows that I’m a man of faith,” he said. “I’m a believer in Jesus. When last year went the way that it did and when I got (sent) down after having about five games up there, and they claimed Phillip Ervin, it was kind of a big turning point for me mentally. I really had to take a step back. I spent a lot of time with the Lord trying to reel myself back into a solid place because I wasn’t really there.”
His catharsis wasn’t complicated.
“It brought me to an understanding that I’m just putting way too much emphasis on what other people think,” he said. “You guys can take it for whatever you guys want to run with, but for me it was simple — just stop caring about what other people are thinking, what other people are saying. Just focusing on me, focusing on what I need to do to help myself get better. Obviously, that directly correlates with helping the team to win ballgames.”
Fraley isn’t the first player to allow his mind to be engulfed by what is being said and written about him or told to him.
“It’s not looking left and right on what the media saying, what Skip (Servais) is saying, what Dipoto is saying or anybody’s really saying,” he said. “You can kind of get yourself all twisted up in your mind and that was very tough for me last year.”
He rediscovered his priorities and found peace.
“It allows me to really understand what really matters,” he said. “It’s definitely not the game of baseball that I play. It’s a passion. It’s something that I love to do. But it’s not who I am. Last year was by far the biggest test of actually living those words that I’ve been saying for my entire life.”
Fraley got a late call-up last season, but suffered a strained quad in the one game he was back.
“I really only played like six games or seven games last year,” he said. “I really feel like sitting here now that the last time I played a season was in 2019.”
The Mariners would love to have the Fraley from 2019. He dominated at the Class AA level and was solid at the Class AAA level, but his call-up to the MLB level was limited to 12 games. It was delayed by an ankle issue and ended early due to a thumb injury suffered in an outfield collision with Smith.
He’s played in a total of 19 MLB games. Does that really offer a true gauge of Jake Fraley as an MLB player?
“I don’t think you or anybody in baseball would say 20 games is fair to say that you’ve seen a player do what he can do at a certain level,” he said. “You haven’t been able to see what I really can do at the big-league level because I haven’t necessarily had the time frame I’ve had at every single level to do what I’ve done. If you look back at when I have a full season and a good amount of at-bats, that’s who Jake Fraley is and that’s what I’ve done my entire career. I haven’t had that at the MLB level. I wouldn’t base it off 20 games.”
Fraley knows he’s competing for a spot on the roster with Jarred Kelenic, Braden Bishop and the utility infielder that Seattle used last season in the outfield. He trimmed up, got more flexible and tweaked his swing. His mindset remains unchanged.
“It’s focusing on what I can do to help this team win and not worrying about all the other things like what people are saying,” he said. “At the end of the day, there’s a lot of people, a lot of opinions and people have to make the decisions they have to make. All I can worry about is what I do out on that field and what I do every day to try and get better.”